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Movie of the Day: Jarhead (2005)

“A story: A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory, and he believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper; his hands remember the rifle.”
The first thing that may surprise audiences is that this is not necessarily an anti-war piece. Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. have been careful not to make this film narrow in view. Instead, by focusing on the psychological turmoil of one soldier, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jarhead is able to speak specifically about this man's experience and how it relates to those around him.
Mendes drenches the screen with sights and sounds that literally envelope us in the horrors of warfare. These explosions of vision and noise are counterbalanced, however, with scenes of great sadness and warmth. One scene that comes quickly to mind is a boot camp drill where the young soldiers are crawling under barbed wire--the sound design is such that we hear every character screaming or grunting as the gunshots zoom overhead. But then, the scene changes. An event occurs that allows Mendes to silence all of the violence and machismo of war. Amongst the hysteria of the scene, one of the soldiers freaks out and a gunshot is discharged. Mendes lets the camera witness this as if it hadn't expected it to occur. The characters are in shock, and so is the audience. It's just one of many powerful moments where Mendes changes from loud, visceral warfare to quiet, poignant moments.
Not that there's much warfare here. In fact, the lack of warfare becomes a theme for this film. Peter Sarsgaard, in a great performance, reaches his breaking point during the final third of the film, and it's a riveting moment where the lack of warfare has finally made him explode. His performance is very strong throughout, but it is not until the second half of the film when he finally gets the chance to break loose.
Jamie Foxx surprised me here. His character is so well-conceived, and works wonderfully as the counterpoint to the Gyllenhaal character. Foxx plays his scenes confidently, but also with touches of gravitas that, even in Ray, we haven't seen before. The scene that we get a glimpse of at the end of the trailer is wonderful in its fullness, and helps Mendes' film give us a well-rounded opinion of Swofford's opinions on the war. Foxx is by turns hilarious and profound.
And then there was Jake Gyllenhaal. Wow. This is an incredible performance. Watch for a dozen scenes where he literally explodes off the screen, but how he also juggles the quieter moments with great aplomb. What makes Swofford an intriguing character is that he doesn't always get our sympathy; or, for that matter, want our sympathy. He is scarred by war and his family and the life he left behind, and he is just looking for a way to get out of the sand and the sexual dysfunction of war and the lack of gunfire. Gyllenhaal captivates our attention from his very first glimpse, and his voice-over performance laces the film with irony and melancholy. He is a great physical presence in the film as well. I could cite more than a few dynamic scenes that he performs masterfully in, but I'll just mention one. Swofford points a rifle at a fellow soldier after a failed night watch, and then turns the rifle on himself, asking the fellow soldier to discard a round into his mouth. It's an indescribably painful scene to watch, but it's also an example of Gyllenhaal's brave and honest portrayal of this bruised man.
Some people have begun to write about this film as lacking structure or story, and in saying that I'm afraid they may have missed the point. This is a story about ambiguity of self, about dislocation, about ambivalence to war and love, about sexual frustration. In these terms, I think Mendes & Co. have found the perfect way to cinematically allow us to experience the same sort of blank complexity that Swofford must have felt.
As Swof's friend Troy says at one point, "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit". Which is all the movie is about, really. This is what happened. Take it or leave it. 9/10

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